Rudolph the Red Knows Undersea Warfare, Dear

The Soviet Union, from the moment World War II ended until the nation’s collapse toward the end of the 20th century, was at odds with the United Kingdom. Before the War’s end, though, the two were almost friends, united by a mutual hatred of a common enemy. The Scandinavian coast was, generally, the domain of the Russians, but in the summer of 1941, the British Royal Navy was also there to help in the fight against Germany. The assistance was appreciated and, in August of 1941, the Soviets played host to the HMS Trident — a British submarine — in a ceremonial display of alliance.

For the 56 men crowded inside the Trident, this meeting with the Russians was quite welcome; they had spent weeks aboard the ship without stopping off for supplies and were about to embark on another six weeks of mostly underwater adventures. Their Soviet hosts were likely to provide them with new ways to pass the time during the slower parts of the war. But they got more than they bargained for.

They got a reindeer.

Yeah, an actual, living, reindeer.

Gifts between nations to recognize an alliance aren’t uncommon. And they’re mostly symbolic, so there’s rarely any expectation that the gift be practical. But usually, these gifts are, in the very least, sensible — and there is nothing whatsoever sensible in putting a reindeer on a submarine, particularly not one serving in the middle of the biggest war in human history. So it’s not entirely clear why the Soviets thought this was a good idea. Bill Sainsbury, a Royal Navy Submarine Museum spokesperson (via the BBC), explained the prevailing theory:

The story goes that the British captain had mentioned his wife had trouble pushing her pram through the snow in England – and the Russian admiral said ‘what you need is a reindeer!’. And I suppose because it was a gift, they didn’t want to seem rude by refusing it.

So, aboard came the reindeer. Russians provided the crew with some moss for the sub’s new mascot, and off the Trident went. As the Trident left their Russian hosts, they did so with a crew of 57 — the full complement they arrived with, plus a reindeer they’d soon name Pollyanna. 

Pollyanna had brought aboard through a torpedo tube — it was the only horizontal opening large enough to coax her through — and the hope was that she’d spend the rest of the voyage living there. But Pollyanna wasn’t aware of her restrictions and instead, went wherever she wanted. According to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, she became “quite settled with life on the submarine and moved about easily.” The reindeer made a home for herself “in the captain’s cabin next to his bunk and got used to the noises of the submarine,” and was among the first aboard the ship “to trot into the control room to be ready for the main hatch to open and the fresh air to pour in.” 

It wasn’t all fun and reindeer games, though. The moss that the Russians provided the Trident with ran out quickly, and the reindeer began eating indiscriminately, consuming whatever she could find. Per War History Online, she took a liking to scraps from the mess hall and to condensed milk, but didn’t stop there — she “also ended up eating some of the navigation charts.” The crew managed to survive with less food and incomplete maps, but Pollyanna’s appetite caused another problem: By the time the Trident pulled into port back in the UK six weeks or so later, she was too big to disembark through the torpedo tube and had to be finessed out of the main hatch.

When the Trident left again, Pollyanna stayed ashore. And she’d never take to the seas again. Instead, she was moved to what would later become the London Zoo, where she lived out the rest of her life in an environment more fitting for a reindeer. She passed away in 1947.

Bonus fact: RIght before Christmas 2016, Domino’s Pizza tried a new way to deliver pizzas, piloting a program in Japan where reindeer would make the deliveries. It didn’t work. “Domino’s Japan has pulled the reins on its special caribou-based delivery program just one week after it launched, after the reindeer continually shook their antlers, refused to stop at delivery spots, and kept dislodging the pizzas from their delivery pouches,” per NBC News.

From the Archives: How Potatoes Changed the Outcome of a World War II Naval Battle: Another World War II sub story.